Are Random Acts of Kindness Part of Human Nature?

Random acts of kindness, and the drive behind them, may be the key to our survival as a species.

| May 2014

Survival of the Nicest (The Experiment, 2014) turns the tables on one of our most entrenched assumptions. While "survival of the fittest" may conjure up an image of cutthroat individuals clawing their way to the top, author Stefan Klein illustrates that altruism has played a pivotal role in our evolution. Our best chance at surviving—and thriving—as a species requires that we work together for one another's benefit, Klein argues. In this selection from the introduction, the author asks what it is that makes one become a hero, and if random acts of kindness are a shared drive in our human nature.

The Nature Behind Random Acts of Kindness

I have received in a Manchester Newspaper a rather good squib, showing that I have proved “might is right,” & therefore that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right.
Charles Darwin

Wesley Autrey was waiting for the subway in New York City with his two little daughters when the young man next to him suddenly began to shake, went into convulsions, fell on his back, and began to wave his arms and legs like an overturned beetle. There were perhaps a hundred people on the crowded platform, but most of them looked the other way. Besides Autrey, only two women rushed over to help, but Autrey was faster. With great presence of mind he asked for a ballpoint pen and jammed it between the young man’s teeth so he couldn’t bite his tongue during the epileptic seizure. After a short time, the convulsions lessened and stopped, the young man got up, and Autrey thought he would be able to continue on his way.

A rumble and the glare of a headlight announced the arrival of the train. At that moment, the epileptic began to stagger again. He stumbled to the edge of the platform, lost his balance, and fell onto the tracks. Autrey asked one of the two women to look after his daughters and jumped down onto the track bed. The train was already rolling into the station, leaving Autrey not even a fraction of a second to think. He grabbed the fallen man and tried to heave him onto the platform, but the man was too heavy. So Autrey pulled him down between the rails and threw himself on top of him. The epileptic struggled, but Autrey pushed him down with all his might. When something cold touched his forehead, Autrey pressed his head into the other man’s shoulder. Only two fingers of space separated his head from the train’s undercarriage.

Five cars rolled over him. Then the train came to a halt and Autrey could hear his daughters screaming. When rescue workers finally freed the two men from beneath the train, there was a smear of grease on Autrey’s cap. The paramedics discovered only a few bruises on the epileptic. Autrey himself refused medical attention. In his opinion, he hadn’t done anything special even though he knew he had risked his life. “I saw the man and he needed help…I just felt that I had to do something.”

If you imagine Autrey as a taciturn and straitlaced fighter for justice and decency—a western hero in the mold of Gary Cooper—you would be mistaken. And he is nothing like the cliché of the pale martyrs eager to make a show of their readiness to sacrifice themselves for others. Wesley Autrey has an athletic build, and if you met him in his Harlem neighborhood, with his warm-up suit and a baseball cap turned backward, you might mistake him for a rapper. Only a few gray hairs in his beard hinted at his age of fifty-one.